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Minnesota Orchestra management and musicians are still worlds apart as they meet with a federal mediator on Monday, six days before the orchestra's union contract expires.
Management's original proposal, delivered April 12, would cut musicians' average salaries to $89,000, from $135,000.
Musicians have made no counteroffer. With the season-opening concert still four weeks off, the union has no strike leverage. But neither is it inclined to accept the current proposal.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there is a lockout," said John Budd, a labor-relations expert at the Carlson School of Management. "That's what we've seen elsewhere, and if you look at the economics, it makes sense from a management perspective."
A lockout would prevent musicians from working and receiving paychecks. The union can challenge the legality with the National Labor Relations Board, but the appeal process could take weeks.
"It's a possibility," said principal trombonist Doug Wright, a member of the union team. "It's not in our control, and, obviously, we'd like to avoid it."
Management could declare an impasse and impose the final offer, while the two sides continue talking. That, too, could be challenged. Another possibility is to continue talking, which the musicians would prefer.
"Playing and talking is a thing this orchestra has done before," Wright said.
The board has said for three years that the orchestra no longer can "survive based on optimistic economic assumptions and the hope of limitless benefactor generosity." The orchestra in fiscal 2011 reported its largest deficit ever, $2.9 million, a shortfall that could double in 2012.
Musicians said that if the board was crying poverty, it should agree to an independent financial analysis.
"We're trying to wrap our heads around what the problem is," Wright said Friday. "A lot of the information we see is in conflict with itself. There are pieces missing."
Michael Henson, president and CEO of the orchestra, said on Friday that no immediate financial crisis exists, but he likened the investment funds that help fund each season to a retirement account.
"You can't spend 90 percent of it in the first four years of retirement," Henson said. "You need to make it last."
He indicated the orchestra would like to draw no more than 5 percent annually from the funds; the draw rate has averaged nearly 10 percent over the past 10 years, he said.
The parties have not met since August. Earlier this month, the orchestra published on its website details of its proposal, summaries, a strategic plan and an open letter making its case to the community.
Musicians, initially angered that the orchestra had gone public, have used the salary proposals to rally fans. More than 2,000 people have signed petitions in support.
Union and management at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra also are meeting this week, ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline. Musician Carole Mason Smith said the union has significant questions about a second offer from the orchestra, but indicated "everyone wants to get a deal done."
Will there be losses?
With a Minnesota Orchestra agreement in peril, observers wonder about a work stoppage and whether musicians -- some of whom are taking auditions elsewhere -- will leave. Said Richard Davis, the U.S. Bank chair who heads the board's negotiating team: "It's going to be very challenging to find a way to protect the artistic integrity of this world-class orchestra and not lose the players that have made it that way."
He has reason to worry. Before and during a 2011 strike, the Detroit Symphony lost its concertmaster of 23 years, its principal timpanist and the entire percussion section. The St. Louis Symphony experienced losses, too, when musicians struck in 2005.
However, St. Louis just returned from a well-received European tour that included the BBC Proms -- much like Minnesota did in 2010.
"Most of the bitterness is gone," said Sarah Bryan Miller, music critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "There were a lot of people who thought they were going to get jobs elsewhere, but they didn't."
Detroit made at least six hires last spring, including Yoonshin Song, who left the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to become concertmaster.
If there is no deal when the contract expires, the question of impasse looms heavily. It is a legal point at which management can lock out musicians or impose the final offer while talks continue.
"For better or worse, though, there's no flag that goes off or button that pops out like when you're cooking a turkey that says we've reached an impasse," Budd said.
And why hasn't the union offered a counter?
"The strategy would be, it's so extreme that they are waiting for management to revise to something they think is more of a platform to negotiate from," said Budd.
As negotiations unfold his week, logic could take a back seat to the personal chemistry. Bryan Miller said that in 2005 in St. Louis, deliberations deteriorated because of personalities on both sides.
"The attitude is much better now," she said.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 On Twitter: @graydonroyce